The best hand kneading technique for bread baking

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working on the best hand kneading technique for bread baking. And I think I've found it...

There are many ways to hand knead bread. I’ve been taught loads and watched others on a video. But when I recreate, I always seem to struggle with getting that window pane structure.

Especially dying of boredom, frustration or energy.

I’ll share it further on, but it’s been a little while since my last update and I thought I would explain why first. It’s not that I’ve given up posting, don’t worry about that! I’ve been trialling a new system for working and well, there’s been mixed results.

You can find out my way of working here, but to give an overview, instead of pushing to write a blog post a day, I opted for 30 minutes of “my best” writing work a day. The view is to write stronger posts, which really add value to new and existing bakers.

Unfortunately, I've been on holiday for the past week and have not prioritised them. It wasn’t fair on my son or partner to try and steal time to do it, plus I was dying of heat exhaustion!

Despite trying, I could not get up early to knock something up.

It may look like I’ve not tried. But believe me, I have!

So what baking stuff have I been up to?

I’ve been creating a hand kneading technique that doesn’t get the dough too hot whilst still working the dough well.

I’ve started writing my script for the opening lessons for the school. 

Plus I’ve also attempted some outdoors baking when I made pizza on the open fire when camping in the New Forest (Hampshire, UK).

So yeah, still committed to bread baking, just more hands on. Less tapping away on the laptop.

I'll explain the hand kneading technique that I’m in love with in a moment. Before that, I'll tell you why I wanted to find it in the first place:

Why I wanted to discover a new way to knead dough by hand

Let’s start with what sharing what lead me down this road.

First off, I realised my table mixer was just not up to kneading dough.

Second, hand kneading is an important skill that even skilled bakers don’t know. Or don’t use, especially with the recent popularity of “stretch and fold” and “no knead” breads.

So I thought it was important to teach this skill early on in the course.

You can see the blog post here of the time I realised just how much better hand kneading is compared with using a Kenwood or stand mixer.

So how can you get the most out of hand kneading?

The Best Hand Kneading Technique For Bread Baking

My early experiences of hand kneading ended feeling stressed (and embarrassed). 

I used a combination of the "French Technique" and some old school one handed kneading.

Neither really worked.

I desperately had to resist adding more flour to the table to stop the sticky lump created fall apart.

It’s not good for the dough to come in contact with extra flour, so try not to do that.

The dough got sticky early on and by the time the bread came out the oven it would often be a flat and uninspiring. My first hand kneaded focaccia's could be almost classed as flat breads.

Despite resisting to add extra flour, my dough wasn't good enough using the technique I was currently using.

Temperature issues with hand kneading dough

When handling dough, the heat from your hands gets absorbed. When kneading in a mixer, the kinetic energy from the dough hook working the dough also adds heat as a by-product.

But at nowhere near the same level as hand kneading does.

I’ve experimented with many hand kneading techniques and I’ve discovered that each add heat to the dough in different amounts. I did know this.

But I didn’t realise that the amount the temperature increased when kneading dough by hand was beyond control!

Until I learnt how to control it.

Why dough temperature is important

When a dough gets too hot, it gets sticky and sweaty, it’s hard to handle.

Often when a hand kneading baker gets the dough to this point, they stop working the dough. 

Then the dough is left underdeveloped.

But not only this, yeast works faster in warmer temperatures.

This means the dough will rise quicker, which is great for the Chorleywood style of baking, but bad for gluten structure and flavour to develop.

So we must control our dough temperature. The reading we get once our dough has finished developing and is about to be divided for molding is called our Final Dough Temperature.

For the best flavour our final dough temperature in artisan baking should be 20-23C.

This is arguable as many purists prefer to overnight retard in the fridge, but for the sake of baking bread the same day, 20-23C is good for me.

Here's the hand kneading experiments that I did:

learn bread baking

How I came up with the best hand kneading technique

Using the combination of French and one handed techniques to knead the dough I tried to change a few variables.

I tried using fridge cold water at 3.5C, to cool the mix.

This still ended up with a dough of plus 27C, and I hadn’t finished mixing it yet! 

No good.

Next attempt, was to slow mix and then stretch and fold for 2 hours, this meant less time when the dough was in contact with my hands.

This kinda worked, but the dough was still too hot when it came to moulding.

I was forced to dust the table heavily with flour in order to mould it. It ended up without a springy textured crumb I had hoped for… 

Still no good.

I buried my head in a few bake books for a couple of days. This gave me the idea to do a stretch and fold, after slow mixing again, but this time resting the dough in the fridge between folds.

This seemed like the best of both worlds of my dough kingdom, I got a cool temperature and a developed structure.

But there is a but…

I was making a tin loaf

It should be fast to make with a short, slow mix to incorporate the ingredients followed by a fast kneading.

Only a short rest before shaping and final proofing is best.

This creates a light texture and a small, dense crumb which is perfect for sandwiches.

Stretch and fold wasn't going to work

So again, no good.

How to learn to bake bread

The bread didn't have an exciting oven spring and took ages to rise anyway.

It was nice, but it wasn't right for what I wanted.

I thought long and hard this time. There must be a way to bake a decent tin loaf using my hands to knead the dough??!!

But then...       Eureka!

Let's just use the fridge to cool the dough between the slow and the fast mixes. I could also cool it further by allowing to rest in the fridge after mixing.

I’m really going against my supermarket baking days here, we used to place all our divided dough in the proover at 38C just ten minutes after mixing.

After trialling a few different kneading techniques, I finally found it!

It works a little like autolayse..

How autolayse works in bread dough

artisan bread baking online

I tried this too! If your not sure what autolayse is, it’s when a baker places flour, water, preferment,  yeast and occasionally salt into the bowl.

The mixture is lightly mixed together for 1-2 minutes. This is just to incorporate the ingredients.

Then it's covered and left untouched for around 20 minutes.

This is how an autolayse works in baking.

After the autolayse, the baker continues to knead the dough. It allows the baker to reduce the mix time as during the autolayse the dough will develop.

It’s a great thing to do to develop dough without much effort.

By removing the salt when autolaysing it allows the structure to form without it. This creates a more extensible and less elastic dough.  

Does a less elastic dough mean less strong?

Autolayse without salt is great if you want to stretch the dough when moulding for making focaccia or baguettes. It doesn't mean it is not strong. The dough won't try to pull back into a ball as much, it will be more stretchy.

The quality of the dough will still be good.

When making ciabattas I found delaying the yeast AND the salt during the autolayse and adding them in after worked well.

This is because the yeast started to act too early and made the dough rise whilst I was trying to knead it!

Delaying the yeast when increasing the mix time further helps the dough develop for longer. You could also add less yeast to your dough to slow the process down, especially when using stretch and folds.

So, here it is...

The best way to hand knead bread dough

1) Add all your ingredients as normal and set a timer for 7 minutes, mix gently with a dough scraper at first before moving onto the table. The technique once on the table to start with is to massage the dough with the right hand against the table in a half circle technique. The left-hand moves the dough around gently to complete the circle.

2) After 7 minutes, long gluten strands should appear and the dough should feel well distributed and hydrated, not too sticky.

3) Rest the dough in the fridge for 15 minutes in the mixing bowl.

4) Fast knead time, stretch and slap 8 times then turn and fold over to a ball. Repeat this again for 7 minutes.

5) Place in a lightly oil’ed bowl to rest in the fridge for a further 15 minutes.

6) Stretch and fold and put back in the fridge if you like a stronger structure. Alternatively, divide and mould.

*At step 5, the dough should be at around 22C which is the perfect temperature for proving. Alternatively you could keep chilling the dough to advance the development and the flavour or have got the optimum final dough temperature.

Do what you like, but for hand kneading a white tin loaf, it’s perfect at point 6.

This is the best way to knead bread dough by hand that I have found.

Let me know how it works for you! Video to follow.

Written by Gareth

"I'm looking to share my passion in artisan baking with others"

picture of gareth busby

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